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The intentional community where Wendy and I live is committed never to ask anyone to leave because they run out of enough money to stay. Every year, we have a two-day street fair where approximately $180,000 is added to our endowment of over $6,000,000, all dedicated to the support of those residents who need it. We have asked everyone to fill out an anonymous form detailing their economic assets and expenses, and projecting whether their bodies will or will not outlive their financial resources. The results indicate that even our substantial community fund may not be sufficient.

Getting old is a very expensive proposition — and getting more expensive every year. Even in our community committed to healthy lifestyles, medical costs continue to zoom out of sight. A significant percentage of the nation’s medical resources are dedicated to those in the last two or three years of life. America has not yet realized that a single payer system and the end of fee for service medicine really is the only system which can control costs.
While most people think they have planned for retirement, not that many have come to terms with how much it will cost when they've reached their 80's and beyond. For most of us, the day when our children will care for us as we cared for them in their young years is over. Many of them are facing their own financial crises.

Costs of housing, particularly in retirement communities, continue to escalate. Opportunities for travel, advanced education, vacations, nutrition, utilities and more are all constricted by a lack of spendable cash. Anyone thinking they can make it on Social Security, Medicare and a modest IRA is badly deluded. The nation’s conservatives fought Social Security and Medicare at their outset. These programs do help, but they fail to span the great economic gulf facing America’s seniors.

The seriousness of the problem mounts daily with the retirement of the baby boomers, those who have never been known for their frugality. Americans have the lowest saving rates of any people in the developed world. What's more, the generous pensions on which many of us have depended are no more. These defined benefit programs are being rapidly replaced by lump sum payments or other do-it-yourself schemes. And hundreds of thousands of those approaching retirement have either found themselves unemployed or working jobs that require them to ask whether a customer wants “fries with that.” I repeat, getting old is a very expensive proposition!

Most of those in the wealthiest top 20 percent not only have managed to escape having to confront these serious issues, but many have also opposed any public effort to deal with the problem. It is just another example of why the rich get richer, and the rest of us are either economically stagnated or worse off every year. Let them eat cake — or dog food.

Each summer our community welcomes a couple who trade their house in Norway with the house of one of our neighbors. They are middle-class folks from pastoral and teaching vocations, and they cannot understand why the American people cling to such an archaic system. None of the frightening things detailed above seem to concern them. They have totally paid-for medical care and can live what we would call solid middle-class lives without the panic increasing numbers older Americans are facing.

What is the difference? Back home for them, the government is not the enemy, or as Ronald Reagan was fond of remarking, “the problem.” Yes, their taxes are somewhat higher than ours, but what they get for what they pay is substantially superior. Their lives are not denuded in order to feed an overgrown military establishment. They live out the truth that government is the least expensive way to manage medical care as well as humanly sustain their increasing number of aging citizens in other ways. If it is not the least expensive way, at least, it is the fairest.

But fear not. With the burgeoning of our aging population, more and more composed of progressives, there is an increased chance that there may some day come a gray-haired revolution.

Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer is a somewhat retired theological professor and congregational pastor. 

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